The Innocence of Witnessing: A Conversation with Hop Along

Interview by Rivka Yeker

After a photoshoot outside, where the weather granted us a perfectly lit overcast backdrop, Hop Along shuffled their way through the back door into the Metro. We made our way to a corner in the green room, while the sounds of people practicing vocals and chatting serenaded us. 

I began talking to Frances about her storytelling, not just lyrically, but also sonically. In the same way a classical composition can create an visceral cinematic experience, I claim that Hop Along can, too. I ask her about the way a certain line in a song can align with the mood of the music, in a way that is synchronous. For example: “Look of Love” off the new record Bark Your Head Off, Dog is a song where Frances’ voice almost looks like it’s riding the musical notes, working alongside them like long-term partners.

Something I notice quickly with Frances is her self-deprecation. It is light-hearted, but earnest. She says in regards to her storytelling writing, “It gets in the way of the music a little bit. One thing I struggle with is how the music fits with the written content. I do want to provide narratives; I do want to get people into a physical space. I want our songs to do the same thing [as books]. But it’s a challenge, because you have a certain amount of time to build something visually, and music has its own way of doing that.” 

This is particularly interesting to me since Hop Along aggressively takes me into a space. It’s almost as if it’s impossible to leave the space once I’ve entered. They create records that you have to listen to from beginning to end or else you are missing something vital. In previous interviews and just by being aware of Frances’ savvy as a lyricist, it is obvious she has a background in literature, or a deep love for it. 

Frances says, “I wanted to be a short story writer; I never thought I’d have the attention span to be a novelist. I love writing, maybe even more than I love singing.” Which is unsurprising to some, but an obvious revelation to me, as the lyrics are so visibly poetic and personal, so much so that only someone who thinks like a writer before anything else could come up with them. 

She says, “I was into slam poetry. I remember reading this poem on stage once and a friend said to me, ‘God, your voice is so interesting that I could hardly pay attention to what you were saying.’ Which bummed me out because I worked so hard, but I wanted to be so engaging that it actually took away from the poem itself.” Frances relates this to her work after, saying, “I heard him when he said that, but I don’t think I really listened for the longest time, as you can tell in previous records. I do think at times my voice could get in the way.” 

So, do the lyrics matter? She says, “There are people who like our band that aren’t interested in our lyrics at all. I know people who are big fans of Bob Dylan, but don’t care that much about the lyrics.” Which, is shocking to me, on both accounts. But, people consume art for different reasons. People very well may be listening to Hop Along solely for Frances’ voice and the music, rather than the stories she’s telling. Yet, I am still curious about the lyrics. I will forever be curious about her lyrics because they are so vague and cryptic, yet deeply personal and strangely relatable. I want to understand how that is.

 photo by  A Klass

photo by A Klass

She says, “You’re using a part of your body to convey something abstract like language and it takes a long time to understand how to use the strong parts of that. What parts of me can convey sadness better vocally?” Which makes me think once again, about the alignment of music and lyrics and how just her voice alone can provoke an emotional reaction -- even when the lyrics themselves aren’t completely understood. 

I ask Frances if she considers herself the protagonist or the observer in the stories she’s telling. She says, “I never feel like a protagonist. I never have the confidence to write myself in that way. I just don’t feel that way about myself. It feels more correct to just observe, and even that, it’s faulty because it’s through my eyes. I don’t want to get in the way, I don’t think I’m half as interesting.”

This brings up the concept of being the author of an observation. Suddenly, Frances has the ability to create a story through her lens as the witness, suddenly that story is potentially detached from reality and most likely fictionalized. This segues us into the root of the stories she is typically writing about. 

“Annie Dillard said that writers often write on childhood because it’s the last first-hand experience they had. That’s all I write about. You can never exhaust that well.”

Similar to the experience of witnessing, we are always revising our childhoods because our memories are perpetually fleeting. We aren’t reliable narrators, the same way we aren’t reliable in our observations. Yet, it is the claiming of authorship on these stories that we hold close to ourselves. It is the decision to write about them at all. 

Frances speaks about the tension between being a young person and wanting to have more under your belt and being an older person and yearning for the past. She says, “We’re struggling against it, and for it. We want to be experienced, and yet there is a terror in leaving childhood.” 

I tell her about one of my favorite lyrics from her first record Freshman Year under the moniker Hop Along, Queen Ansleis. It is in the song “Bruno Is Orange”, which Frances reveals that it is an homage to the book When I was Five I Killed Myself and the lyric is, “Did you hear about that mother? / Broke her daughter's legs in two / And said, ‘It's too dangerous out there to walk, so I had to save you.’” For me, this lyric, encapsulates the experience of being a child and being almost helpless. There is the act of being taken care of, where every choice is made for you, where your lens and perspective is taken less seriously than anyone else’s. It is the presumption that children have no valuable truth to add, that their truth is merely faulty logic. 

Frances says, “When I was younger, I daydreamed all the time and my mom who’s a very nice lady, would say, ‘You’re just bored.’ and I assumed that I must be stupid, that I’m not that interesting, that other people are way more interesting and have way more captivating stories.”

If Hop Along’s lyrics are rooted in the experience of childhood and children’s voices are belittled, I wonder if Frances is making an attempt to give those voices, especially her own, a chance to live, an opportunity to be taken seriously. There is a sort of empathy we must give to our past selves, one that is often stolen from us because of how much pressure kids have on their shoulders to figure everything out quickly. Frances says in relation to kids being rushed to be good at everything, “I think it’s too bad when kids aren’t given a shot at being bad.” 

With the newfound knowledge of Frances’ relationship with her childhood, which is planted in her lyrics, I am curious to know more about the people she derives inspiration from. She is currently reading Elena Ferrante, an Italian writer, who Frances says writes soap opera-esque novels that capture relationships and trauma in an intelligent way. While she was once inspired by Steinbeck, she recognizes that his treatment of women characters, like many white men, is flawed. She says, “The only older male author that handles women well is James Baldwin.” Which then brings us to the conversation on how oftentimes if a person is marginalized, they are more cautious with how they write other marginalized characters. We talk about the different “genre” of women’s voices and how characters are developed in literature, the reality of a one-dimensional woman character versus a well-rounded, well-crafted woman character.

The concept of women being different “genres” makes me want to ask about her most talked about feature: her voice. It is constantly deemed as powerful, and I asked her how she feels about the term. She says, “I almost envy that image, I certainly don’t feel powerful. I wonder had I been born a man, how meek of a person I would be, because I would say I’m more meek.” The childhood voice, the woman’s voice, both silenced. Where does the grandiose voice come from?

“In this record, I was worried that I was going to sound really bitter, that I was going to sound really angry.”

“What’s wrong with being angry?”

“Nothing. That’s why I said, ‘fuck it.’”

And so, the record shifted gears. Suddenly, this became Hop Along’s most intentional record. Frances admits, “This album is the closest I’ve ever come to saying what I meant.” She continues, “In this album, I was trying to address my own discomfort without making anybody feel like they couldn’t be a part of it. I didn’t want men to hear it and think, ‘this isn’t for me,’” Which, once again, comes from the instinctual tendency as a woman to cater to men, to make sure they can still feel comfortable in the presence of something made by a woman that is confrontational, raw, and powerful. With this record, though, Frances says that they have the decision to choose, that it isn’t up to her to make sure they’re comfortable anymore. She says, “that’s on them.”

That’s not to say that this is an easy act. After a life of being conditioned to be quiet, how does one speak up? She says, “Accessing your own power is a form of responsibility. It makes me uncomfortable to stick up for myself. It feels right, but it doesn’t feel good.” But suddenly the voices that were once quiet are loud, vibrant, all-consuming. 

Frances, who claims that she is not as good of a witness as she wants to be, admits to the faults of witnessing itself. Yet, this is her way of sharing her thoughts and opinions. By exposing her observations, she is relaying her truth. By reaching inside herself to provide a platform for the child’s memories, she is showing how that truth came to be. Bark Your Head Off, Dog is Hop Along’s most cohesive record to date; it is the complete collaboration of Frances Quinlan, Joe Reinhart, Mark Quinlan, and Tyler Long. Each record that Hop Along made is its own set of stories, its own revelation, whether it be everyone in the band contributing their side, or Frances translating her complicated web of memory into poetry. 

The act of witnessing, similar to the act of recalling memory, becomes fiction. It becomes a song, and then a string of songs, and then a record. This is how Hop Along pulls you in. 

view the whole spread here.